To Put a New Face on the Matter: The Parables of Jesus in their Gospel Contexts
The application of form criticism to the study of the NT Gospels in the twentieth century led to parable scholarship generally giving little interpretive weight to the parables’ immediate narrative contexts and Gospel framing. Despite recent critique of form criticism, this lack of attention to the NT Gospels' literary arrangement of the parables has yet to be adequately rectified, leaving a gap in parable scholarship that this thesis seeks to partially fill. What follows is an exercise in literary criticism, as informed by socio-historical research, that reads the parables in interpretive dialogue with the material placed in immediate literary proximity to them within the NT Gospels. In dialogue with Irenaeus and several modern parable scholars, I provide a possible theoretical rationale for the importance of the Gospel framing of the parables of Jesus. I observe that scholarship reading the parables in isolation from their Gospel frames tends - of interpretive necessity - to adapt the parables to general hypotheses. These hypotheses tend to dominate in the interpretive process, so that the parables typically function primarily to illustrate, reinforce or commend what is already known from elsewhere in the Gospels (and the NT) or from historical inquiry concerning Jesus. My proposal is that the NT Gospels’ arrangement of the parables, situational and contextual in nature, anticipates an alternative approach to reading the parables, involving an interpretive dialogue between parable and frame that is generative of meaning, so that the parables may make their own unique contribution to their Gospels. I propose a methodology for reading the NT parables that brings individual parables, the narrative circumstances of their telling, and the direct speech elements that accompany them, into an interpretive relationship. This methodology recognises an interpretive dependency (at a literary level) between the parables and their Gospel frames, that creates the conditions for a genuine and collaborative dialogue between them, in which both may mutually inform, and in doing so provide an audience with new ways of seeing the situation at hand. In this way the (situational) meaning and significance of a parable is established in a dialogical manner, and without the parable being dominated by a hypothesis. This interpretive process is shown to be generative of meaning, with associated interpretive outcomes going beyond what is explicit in either parable or frame, even while being thoroughly informed and shaped by them. Applying this methodology to six Synoptic parables results in an emphasis on contextual concerns given insufficient attention in other scholarship, so that new insights emerge concerning the meaning and function of these parables in the ministry of the Synoptic Jesus. I argue that the resulting interpretive outcomes are more varied and specific than when the parables are adapted to a general hypothesis. Further, I show how this contextual approach to interpretation then allows a parable (as first interpreted contextually) to make its own distinct contribution to developing and enriching a Gospel’s wider narrative and theology (even while being given further depth and perspective through reference to that narrative and theology). Included within my methodology is a model designed to illuminate the communicative dynamics that give the parables their persuasive power in relation to their Gospel narrative audiences and circumstances. This model is proposed as a new contribution to parable scholarship, and when applied to the six Synoptic parables brings new insights concerning each parable’s rhetorical function and the rhetorical strategies by which they each achieve their didactic and/or prophetic aims. In general I find that these parables are skilful rhetorical pieces, designed to subvert the way an audience understands the circumstances to which each parable speaks, providing a new perspective on those circumstances that has the potential to liberate and empower an audience to participate (or further participate) in the kingdom of God in new ways. I also argue that the detailed and parable-specific contextual data that the Synoptics provide for these parables allows us to define their individual rhetorical strategies with greater specificity than is otherwise possible. A preliminary assessment of whether my methodology may be applied to all the main Synoptic parables suggests that the NT Gospels’ literary arrangement of the parables of Jesus consistently anticipates a contextual reading. In particular, I argue that the parables are thoroughly integrated into their immediate literary contexts as components of carefully structured literary units, and that sufficient parable-specific data is provided to allow us to assess each parable's significance for the narrative circumstances associated with its telling. I discuss possible objections to a contextual reading of the parables of Jesus. I argue that the parables’ (polyvalent) nature must be not be confused with their actual use and reception in particular circumstances (which may be univalent). I also argue that my approach need not confine the parables’ significance to history; rather the parables may alter the perceptions of a contemporary audience in the same way as I have suggested they altered the perceptions of the parables' Gospel narrative audiences, where the circumstances of the two audiences are similar or analogous. Further, I observe that recent Gospel origins scholarship, together with literary arguments in this thesis, suggest it may be important to re-evaluate the conclusions of Form and Redaction Criticism concerning the historicity of the Gospel arrangement of the parables. Finally I propose that the NT Gospels' literary arrangement of the parables of Jesus, far from being a-historical, may have been carefully designed to replicate for the reader the opportunity the parables provided for the first disciples of the historical Jesus to learn the discipline of active, inquiring and responsive listening (to Jesus) which is necessary to receive the mystery of the kingdom of God.
Advisor: Trebilco, Paul; Snodgrass, Klyne
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Theology
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Parables; Synoptic Parables; Parables of Jesus; Literary Criticism; Narrative Criticism; Rhetorical Criticism; Parable and Metaphor; Parabolic Process; Parable of Sower; Parable of Rich Fool; Parable of Two Sons; Parable of Talents; Parable of Judge and Widow; Parable of Barren Fig Tree; Ezekiel 17; 2 Samuel 14; Parables in Gospel of Thomas; Parables in Irenaeus; Parables and Polyvalence
Research Type: Thesis